From Endurance to Dressage
Let me just say, teaching is hard, y'all. Yesterday, we started our state testing. Here's what my day looked like:
And a bottle of perfume with a card from mother and daughter.
That fleece throw is perfection! I opened it up once I got home and cracked up laughing. It is my new favorite thing.
Seriously. How is that not.The. Best. Gift. Ever? Happy Friday, y'all!
My lessons with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, just keep getting better and better. I am so grateful that our paths crossed when they did. I've only been involved in this sport for about twelve years, so I can't be certain, but I suspect that the rider/trainer relationship has a shelf life. I know that as a classroom teacher, I only have so much to teach a student before they need to move on.
Over the years, particularly when I taught kindergarten, parents would want their little ones to repeat kindergarten only if they could do it with me. I always agreed, but I often wondered if that was what was best for the child. One year, I moved from fourth to fifth grade which meant a third of my class needed to make the move with me. Even though I had new material to teach, I questioned whether it might be better for those kiddos to have the opportunity to learn from someone else.
Last month I wrote a post about all the trainers I've worked with. I think I am a better rider for having been able to work with so many types of teachers. Is it possible to stay with the same trainer or coach forever? Probably. Should we? I don't think so, but I haven't been around long enough to really know the answer to that. Meeting Sean when I did probably happened because I was ready for something different.
Each week he continues to challenges my comfort zone. His coaching always serves to remind me that I have so much more to learn. When I rode on Sunday, my day to video my rides, a long list of remember to do's streamed through my mind: maintain the tempo, be elastic in your elbows, move him around, ask questions, push your hands forward, and on and on.
Sean has expanded my toolbox so much that I can now group my tools. I have suppling tools, add more power tools, build confidence tools, and even a few finessing tools. My weekly video, while still painful to watch, affirms week after week that it all continues to come together.
My ride was so productive on Sunday that I started to rethink my 2022 show schedule. Sean and I both agreed that Izzy just wasn't ready to go back to a USDF show this spring. He wasn't "ready" last year either, but last year was about figuring out where the gaps were and trying to fix them. We didn't, but we formulated a new plan and worked on what we could over the winter.
My local CDS Chapter holds a summer series of small, CDS-rated shows. I hadn't planned on doing any of them because my focus is on USDF shows, but I called Sean after I rode on Sunday and asked what he thought. A good friend will be showing as well. Sean thinks it's a great way to see where Izzy is as far as being able to remain rideable at a show. To make it even better, Sean offered to coach us both virtually using either the Pivo Cast app or maybe even Facebook's Messenger Video Chat feature. So, we may be headed to a show much soon than I had originally thought.
There's no way to know if Izzy is ready unless I try.
That's been my motto for so many years that I assumed I still believed it. For me, saddling up anyway has meant not allowing everyday life irritations to interfere with my riding. Hot day? Get over it, saddle up anyway. It's cold; saddle up anyway. I'm tired (said with a whine), saddle up anyway. Having grit, perseverance, and determination are how one succeeds in life. If I am not willing to push through mental fatigue or physical discomfort, how will I ever navigate those same challenges while showing? For myself, I've always felt that being a "fair weather" rider creates mediocrity.
And then I turned 50 (now 51), got COVID, and started working for an administrator whose style is to micro manage her staff. Suddenly, I am facing days where I am actually physically tired and mentally exhausted. Speedy is such a generous horse that he could always shoulder my baggage, relieving me of the burden so that I could let it all go and ride. I knew this when my heart horse, Montoya, died. After letting her go that January day, I came back to the barn and cried and cried. Speedy rested his head against me and soaked up all my tears.
Izzy isn't that kind of horse. I know that, but for so long I tried to saddle up anyway; it never strengthened our relationship. I was thinking about this over the weekend. I wasn't feeling my best on Friday, so I pressed my face into Speedy's neck and just breathed. He stood quietly while I rested against him trying to regain my emotional balance. I finally smiled and gave him a hug. I climbed through the fence and wrapped my arms around Izzy searching for that same sense of peace. Izzy couldn't handle the emotions. He quickly raised his head and turned away.
Now that Izzy is my main ride, I face the saddle up anyway conundrum daily. Do I saddle up anyway even if my emotional state is a bit of a mess knowing that Izzy doesn't deal well with my emotional baggage? Or, do I forgo the ride and shove cookies at him instead while we play games? Will powering through advance our relationship, or do I get further by honoring his friendliness which builds confidence? The answer seems obvious when I put it that way. As I get to know Izzy more and more, I have to admit that he cannot be my emotional partner. I can't use him for emotional support; I have to be HIS support. He needs for me to be always expressing confidence and self-assurance.
Instead of feeling obligated to ride him five days a week no matter my emotional and physical state, I have decided to leave the guilt behind and recognize that saddling up anyway is not what is best for this horse. Instead, I am allowing myself to ride on the days that I feel good. That means he gets ridden three to four days a week which is still enough to make progress.
This horse has certainly changed how I ride and think about riding, and that's a good thing.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. You know, Show me sand the floor. Now show me wax on, wax off. Show me paint the fence. You've seen it; you know what I mean. Karate Kid is one of my favorite movies to think about when I am trying to understand dressage. If a kid from Reseda, CA can win the All-Valley Karate Championship after just a few months of lessons, this middle-aged rider can at least ride her horse from A to C without all hell breaking loose. That's why I call my AHA moments, "take aways." You know, as in Chinese take out containers.
I had a long week - you might hear about it later this week, so I was not my usual, over-achieving self for Saturday's lesson. This was a good thing because I am a better listener when I don't have so much energy. I was also more introspective than normal which meant I was more interested in talking about effectiveness of aids than actually riding. No way Sean was going to let me spend an hour talking though, so there was also plenty of riding. I had two things that I wanted to focus on, and Sean threw in a third.
1) Pushing My Hands Forward
For an entire year, Sean has encouraged me to push my hands forward. It wasn't until this last lesson that I actually attached some meaning to what he had said. If you're anything like me, you nod and agree with most of what your trainer says because you're pretty sure you ARE doing what he's asking for. But then, you stop and think: If I am doing what he's saying, why the H E double hockey sticks does he KEEP telling me to do it? Ruh-roh. Yeah. Probably not really doing it.
So, as soon as we started the lesson, I admitted all of the above and then explained how I had played around with the idea over the past week. Sean was (probably) happy to hear that I am now aware that I haven't been putting my hands forward and jumped in with some very animated explanation. I know I geek out completely when my own 5th grade students ask a question that reveals deeper cogitation on their part. Anyway, his explanation went something along the lines of this:
It's not throwing the reins away though. When Izzy gives after an ask, I should push my hands, or maybe even just one hand, forward an inch or two for just a single stride. If he takes that invitation to reach for the bit, go with it. If he doesn't, no big deal. Just come back to where he is to reestablish the contact and ask again. And again. And again. The hope is that eventually, he will reach forward when asked, and maybe even reach forward on his own. We're not there yet, but at least I am now conscious of the need to keep asking and have a plan for what to do when he does. Or doesn't.
2) The Shoulder-in
During the lesson from the weekend before, Sean helped me "fix" some of what was wrong with my aids for shoulder-in. I was using mostly inside aids rather than inside leg to outside rein. Given that it's me we're talking about, it should come as no surprise that I turned a pretty good understanding to total shite the very next day. Suddenly, I couldn't keep Izzy in the shoulder-in at all. I was riding inside leg to outside rein so hell bent on getting it right that I managed to spectacularly destroy even the crappy shoulder-in I had been riding before "getting it."
Sean had a fix for that too. He explained that I was now using my "correct" aids too strongly. Just like we've talked about in the leg yield, I need to put my aids on, and then LET Izzy do the movement, finessing it as needed. He was right. I had my aids so firmly in place that I was blocking Izzy's ability to go forward. Once I put him in the shoulder-in and then quit asking for it, he started to move forward instead of bracing and leaning on me. This horse is an excellent barometer for reading the effectiveness of my aids. If I don't ask correctly, and then allow him to answer, he lets me know it.
3) The Half Pass
I hadn't planned on asking about the half pass, and actually, it's something I never work on anymore. I have become so obsessed with rhythm, tempo, and suppleness that I forget to work on any of the "tricks." Once my shoulder-in was looking better, Sean instructed me to ride travers. And once I was sitting to the inside and riding forward into both reins evenly - to the best of my ability anyway, Sean had me ride the half pass. He teaches that the half pass is really just travers on a diagonal line.
I learned to ride the half pass on Speedy, and it was always so difficult. Speedy's strength was in the forward movements rather than the lateral ones, so I am learning to change my aids while riding Izzy. To ride a half pass out of the corner with Speedy, I had to keep him well bent around my leg as I came out of the corner, or I couldn't get the haunches to follow. They would trail along with very little likeness to a travers. I had to really over-ride the movement. With Izzy, he can almost wrap his haunches around to touch his shoulder. This means I am now under-riding the half pass. I need to ride him out of the corner as though in shoulder-in but head toward M or H on the diagonal line, and then ask for the travers, not before. If I start with the haunches in, those same haunches are likely to get to M before his nose does.
After a few attempts, Sean thought it was much improved. Not a Third Level half pass, but a developing one. I explained that rather than over-riding the movement, I am under-riding it. Once I figure out my aids, the half pass will be really pretty. Izzy can already do it; he just needs me to ask him correctly.
With my recent obsession with the basics, the Karate Kid metaphor is even more appropriate. In the scene where Daniel is frustrated about doing all of Mr. Miyagi's chores, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel, "Not everything is as seems." Then he shows Daniel how painting the fence, waxing the car, and sanding the deck - the most basic of movements, are the foundational skills for karate. It's an inspiring moment in the movie and one that I think about when the basics start to seem boring. At the end of the scene, Mr. Miyagi, with quiet confidence, tells Daniel, "Come back tomorrow."
My own Mr. Miyagi, Sean Cunningham, always finishes with, "Come back next week." With take aways like these last three, he doesn't have to tell me twice.
I haven't written about my Pivo Pod in a few weeks, so I thought I would give you an update. To start with, the Pivo Pod is the best $150 I have ever spent. For those who have never heard of Pivo, it's a small device that allows you to mount your phone on top so that, once you download the app, it tracks your movement. Even better, with the Pivo Cast app, you can do video calls for virtual lessons.
I bought the Pivo Pod Silver which is now being marketed as Pivo Pod Active, but there are a lot of other choices. I also bought the Pivo Travel Case Mini which keeps my Pod safe as I throw it in my barn bag each week. I also bought the Smart Mount which I've never used. I did not purchase the tripod because I already had a bendable, short tripod which I wrap about the top fence rail to mount my Pivo when in use. I prefer this method as it is much more secure than a traditional tripod; it can't get knocked over by the wind or a rogue horse ... cough, cough, Izzy.
My old iPhone 7Plus was getting old when I bought the Pivo Pod. I found that recording 30 - 40 minutes of video drained my battery, so even though I have a new phone, the iPhone 12 Pro, I use a solar charger to keep my phone charged while I record. Since I also use the Pivo Pod for virtual lessons, I also bought a pair of Powerbeats Wireless earbuds which were worth every penny spent. Using these earbuds during lessons allows Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and me to hear each other perfectly.
Overall, my experience with the Pivo Pod has been nearly perfect. The issues I have had have been due to technology not associated with Pivo. My old iPhone couldn't handle the workload of the video call, so I replaced it. My trainer's connection gets slow towards the end of the month due to his lack of unlimited hotspot data, so we've had to do some lessons on his phone rather than his laptop. Otherwise, Pivo has been incredibly reliable for me.
Since my Pivo system has so many components, I carry everything in a drawstring backpack that I got long ago from the Riding Warehouse. I am pretty sure it was show swag; my friend Jen is awesome about getting sponsors for her shows. The backpack has been perfect because I can shove everything in it, slip it on, and still have both hands free to deal with Izzy as I carry everything from the barn to the arena and back again. Unfortunately, my trusty bag began to wear thin and needed to be replaced.
I remembered that I have an old sling backpack in my closet, so I dug it out certain that it would be the perfect replacement for the drawstring bag. It has a front pocket that was sized exactly right for my solar charger and two small pockets inside, either of which would have been perfect for my earbuds. With those two items safely stowed, however, it quickly became apparent that I could carry the tripod or the Pivo Pod, but not both. Serious disappointment ensued.
Not wanting to buy an expensive bag just to hold all of my Pivo Pod gear, I dug around on Amazon until I found an inexpensive drawstring backpack that was large enough to hold everything without breaking the bank. For $17.99, I was all in. While I have a huge pile of tote bags, backpacks, and other purses, my needs were pretty specific, and despite having every shape and size of bag, I didn't have the right bag.
This bag is precisely what I needed. There is nothing that I don't like! The drawstrings are much thicker than the ones on my RW bag; they almost feel spongy. There are also two handles on the top of the bag for carrying it in hand instead of as a backpack. Not only does everything fit with loads of room to spare, there are two water bottle pockets, a front pocket, and a small pocket on the inside, perfect for storing the little bag that holds my earbuds. After several weeks of use, I discovered the bag was something I should have bought a yer ago.
With horses, nothing is ever simple, but sometimes, you find an easy solution.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
*** SCEC 10/15-16/22
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%